Marine Staff Sgt. John Jones lost both of his legs to a land mine in Iraq.
He thought his golfing days were over. Thanks in part to Phoenix-based club manufacturer PING, he was wrong.
"I played a lot of golf before I was wounded," Jones said. "After I got hurt, I was skeptical because you're down on yourself a lot. But when I got out on the golf course and hit my first shot, it was beautiful. My second shot was beautiful, and I went on to par my first hole. So after that first par, I said to myself, 'I can come back. I can do this.' It's uplifting."
Jones is among dozens of disabled veterans who have been helped by the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project, which began in 2003 and has provided free sports rehabilitation and instruction in 16 different sports to the severely wounded, which includes those with amputations, spinal and head injuries, and even blindness. The program was designed by Kirk Bauer, a Vietnam War amputee who serves as the executive director of Disabled Sports USA.
"This program and all of these sports have a significant impact on about 1,800 Wounded Warriors and their families each year, and because of companies like PING, we're able to take care of them free of charge," noted Bauer, whose organization has grown to 97 chapters in 38 states, with Arizona's chapter being in Mesa.
"If there is one thing we have learned over the (38) years we've been doing this, it's that the guys really need sports and recreation to get their lives back together. It's been a complete revolution since I was injured (in 1969), and what we can do for the guys now is just incredibly amazing."
That PING got involved is no surprise. Through its own research and development of special-needs golf equipment under engineer Paul Woods, PING has become the industry leader in helping disabled golfers.
"At the moment, PING is the only (club manufacturer) doing this,'' Bauer said. "They helped design our golf program, and even stepped up and donated the clubs."
Bill Gates, who works in community relations for PING, said the cost of the clubs, as well as creating special-needs clubs that work specifically for the severely injured, was a natural fit for PING.
"We put them through eight golf lessons in eight weeks, and when they complete at least six of the eight lessons they get fitted for the clubs," Gates explained. "So far we've had about 45 vets who were fitted and received their clubs, with about 50 more scheduled. ...
"What we've found is getting the clubs is a very exciting moment for these guys. And from our standpoint, it's the least we can do for the sacrifices these heroes have made for our country."
During a special ceremony Wednesday at the PING plant, Jones and Army Sgt. Joey Bozik, a triple amputee, earned their golfing stripes. Also getting a medal from Disabled Sports USA was PING vice president Alan Solheim, who also is a former Marine.
Jones, 30, lost part of his right leg and sustained extensive damage to his left leg in 2005. After multiple surgeries, he made the agonizing decision to amputate the left leg, too. He now lives in Colorado with his wife and three children, one of those a newborn, and also participates in water skiing, kayaking, rafting and cycling.
Bozik, also 30, lost his legs and his right arm to a land mine in Iraq a little more than two years ago. He recently moved to North Carolina, where he is going to school. He and his wife are expecting their first child in December.
"Golf is very self-motivating,'' said Bozik, who also was an avid golfer before being injured. "It's a very up and down sport: One day you hit it great, the next day you're terrible. The first ball I hit with my driver after my injuries only went 50 yards. It was so discouraging, so disheartening. Now I shoot in the mid to high 80s."
It's why the golf program is so important to the project. As Bauer noted, golf is the third-most popular sport in the rehabilitation of Wounded Warriors right behind snow and water sports.
"After they get hit, we want to get them back on their feet as soon as possible, so they don't feel they are disabled," Bauer said. "Golf gets them going early in the rehab process, and it's a wonderful boost to their self-confidence when they get that first ball airborne.
"Plus, it's a sport for a lifetime, one that challenges them as well as gives them some type of normalcy."
In other words, these Wounded Warriors play the game for the same reasons that you and I do. The only real difference might be that they play it harder.